LIFE

I Went On A 9 Day Trip With Only My Baby Brother. This Is What I Learned About Him And Myself

by Grace Eire
Grace plays in a band and is the mother to a black cat named Fitzhugh.

I’ve rarely spent more than a few consecutive hours with my four-years-younger little brother, Bruno.

But when Bruno got into a five-week program at Oxford University this summer, I suggested that I meet him in England when it wrapped up so we could take a trip through Europe. We’re in our early and late 20s now. It was about time we actually spent some time together.

Weeks went by after my original suggestion to travel together, and loose plans were made. My mom, dad, brother, and I scrambled to figure out which cities to visit and for how long. Planning has never been my family’s strong suit, and this episode was no exception. Somehow, we wrangled the information we needed and booked the flights.

All of a sudden, the date of my departure arrived, and I began to panic.

Thumbnail Photos: Grace Eire for LittleThings

Growing Up With Bruno

babies
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Growing up, we didn’t really get along too well all the time. Still, I was always very protective of him, and he of me.

Before he could swim, I’d give him piggyback rides along the edge of the public pool so he could go into the deep end. When he went careening down a steep snowy hill, then up a slick ramp before flying through the air and smashing into the snow, I held his mangled arm all the way to the hospital on a tiger-striped pillow from our living room.

Most of the time, though, I was yelling at him to be quiet or telling him that I hated him. I didn’t hate him, of course, but let’s chalk it up to middle-child syndrome for now.

Recently, we’ve gotten along pretty well, though we’ve never been nearly as close as other siblings.

The Trip

Pre-Flight

flying
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I hate flying. Logically, I know that it’s exponentially safer than driving, but I still hate it. Flying thousands of miles high in the sky in a giant (albeit fancy) metal garbage can just doesn’t seem like a good idea. When I got to the airport, it finally dawned on me that I would have to be trapped in one of these things for many hours. I’d been so busy with work, my band, and generally living in New York that it hadn’t actually sunk in until I checked in at the airport.

As soon as I’d made it through security, I grabbed the first available seat at the gate’s bar and paid $13 for an IPA to help calm my nerves. I took out my phone to tell my mom I’d arrived at the gate and saw that I had a Snapchat from Bruno. He was out having a few pints with his friends in Oxford, and because of the time difference, it was about 1:30 a.m. his time. The Snapchat was a text saying that he was excited to finally spend time with his sister. While the text was fueled by a couple of ciders, I knew the sentiment was real and the conversation that followed helped calm my nerves as I sipped my pre-flight beer.

Friday, Day 1: Oxford

oxford
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I made it to Oxford via bus from London and found Bruno at his college. We had a slightly awkward hug due to my giant travel backpack, but it was really nice to see him! The conversation steered toward an easy, surface-level topic, as it usually does, of how much we both love the local grocery store, Sainsbury’s. We then took a pit stop to buy a cheap (but delicious) sandwich.

It was a little strange being back there, as I studied creative writing in the UK when I was 19. Bruno is one of the smartest people I know, so it’s no surprise he studied history at Oxford. It makes much more sense for him to be there than me. I always tell people that he is one of the smartest guys I know.

This was Bruno’s first experience being away from home. Before Oxford, he commuted to college from my parents’ house. When we went out on the town for pints, it was really amazing seeing him with all of his new friends from the program. He seemed so happy and outgoing, which was a really new thing for me to witness.

Saturday, Day 2: Oxford

oxford day
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On our second day in Oxford, we got caught in a torrential downpour, but we didn’t let it ruin anything. We went back to the same pub we were at the night before and ordered coffee. Soon enough the rain passed and we were able to partake in one of Oxford’s traditional activities: punting.

Punting, my friends, is not for the weak of heart or spirit. Running into low-hanging branch after low-hanging branch, it instilled the fear of God in me.

I’m not sure if you know this, but there are no immediate breaks on a punting boat, which is incredibly long and narrow. As soon as we launched, I steered us directly into a tree. I was being very American and shouting, “I’M IN A TREE, GET ME OUT OF THE TREE.” Shameful.

Bruno was even worse at steering the boat. As others glided lazily past, we were panicking, once again trying to get away from the river bank and its numerous scraggly branches. I am still, as I sit here writing, laughing at when we sped directly into a tree and Bruno was almost flung into the murky water. I nearly peed in my pants. I don’t remember a time I laughed so hard with my little brother. While we may not make for a great maritime team, we definitely got a good laugh out of the attempt.

We only made it a couple hundred feet around the path before we decided to turn around and call it quits.

We then concluded our time in Oxford with a well-deserved pint, then got ready to take a train across the channel to Belgium.

Sunday, Day 3: Bruges

waffles
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After nearly missing our bus from Lille, France, to Bruges in Belgium, we finally arrived and checked into our boat/hotel.

Before we finally got to eat these indulgent and way-too-expensive Belgian waffles, we had to earn them. We walked 11 miles through the city, which was idyllic and full of horse-drawn carriages and cobblestone alleyways.

But the crazy look in our eyes in the picture above is from hours of wandering around, trying to change our American dollars to Euros, or at least to find an ATM to take cash out to pay for the darned dessert.

We passively argued about what to do next the entire time. I wanted to make a specific plan, and Bruno wanted to simply wander about until we stumbled upon a place to change our money or a waffle institution that wasn’t cash only. We were both a little frustrated with each other, but we did a good job of looking at the positive side: at least we got to see the whole city of Bruges on foot.

Weary, hungry, and at our wit’s end, we finally found a place to withdraw money, and these waffles were worth it — 100%.

The town shuts down early, so we did as well. Off to Aachen, Germany!

Monday, Day 4: Aachen

aachen
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Exploring Aachen with my brother was a pretty great way to spend a Monday. Apparently, it’s where Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman emperor, is buried. The cathedral that he ordered built back in 796 AD is breathtaking. Every inch is covered in sparkling glass mosaic and gold leaf.

To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure who Charlemagne was when I entered the cathedral. Bruno, a history buff, was utterly appalled. I probably knew at some point, but my mind not being a fly trap for information like his, I let the information slide when other things needed the room. He is always happy to share his knowledge, though, and gave me the Holy Roman scoop.

We then sought out some traditional German food, with the caveat that the establishment offer me a vegetarian option. We’d found some carb-loaded currywurst, both meat and vegetarian. It was saucy and delicious.

That night, we sat at a pub in an ancient square and talked in depth about our childhood, family, and our lives as they are these days. We talked through our stints of depression, various psychological disorders, some of which led to hospitalizations and near-death experiences, drama with close friends, relationships with family members — pretty much everything. Though we’ve grown up essentially as parallel lines, there is so much we didn’t know about each other. To put it simply, it was really nice.

Tuesday, Day 5: Cologne

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Cologne was the first city in which we’d have more than a day to explore. We had some time between our arrival and our Airbnb check-in, so we went to an art museum to kill some time. After purchasing the tickets in Bruno’s rusty German, we shoved our luggage into lockers, only to discover the tickets had gone missing — and that Bruno’s locker would not unlock. I lost my temper, and Bruno apologized profusely for something that wasn’t really his fault. Turns out, we’d left our tickets at the counter and we were just being bumbling idiots about the locker.

After dropping off our bags, we visited Cologne Cathedral, one of the biggest pieces of ancient architecture I’ve ever seen. Both of us were simply in awe of the structure and the man-hours that went into putting together this gargantuan building.

We sat in a pew for an undetermined amount of time listening to the organ blare away in the echoing halls. I was no longer frustrated, and I think that Bruno no longer felt sorry for the thing that wasn’t his fault.

Wednesday, Day 6: Cologne

cologne 2
Grace Eire for LittleThings

This is the day that I snapped.

After once again walking at least 10 miles exploring more amazing old churches, it was time for dinner.

There are days when my extremely rocky relationship with food gets in the way of enjoying myself and ruins the day for others, and this was one of them. German food isn’t very vegetarian (or vegetable) friendly, but my little brother really, really wanted to try as much authentic food as possible. I didn’t want to stop him, so I let him choose the place. Tired, hungry, and anxious about the hole burning in my pocket throughout the entire trip, I begrudgingly ordered the only vegetarian dish on the menu, a hearty, creamy potatoes gratin.

Bruno, once again, apologized for something that wasn’t his fault as I frowned at my dish. I apologized back for being upset, and this exchange went on for the entire time he ate his blood sausage and potatoes (which he loved).

Traveling with Bruno, I realized that we are pretty much exactly the same. We try to be so flexible and accommodating to others that, ironically, it sometimes makes it impossible to come to a solution that makes everyone happy. Both of our parents are the same way, too.

Thursday, Day 7: Amsterdam

amsterdam
Grace Eire for LittleThings

As soon as we arrived in Amsterdam, we both wished we had allotted more time for this city. There was simply so much to do. It was beautiful in a refreshing, new way, and the number of museums was overwhelming.

It’s also where more than one very friendly person assumed that we were a couple, not brother and sister. It wasn’t as awkward as it could have been, as the folks were just being conversational. However, it did get old correcting strangers about our relationship. I mean, we look like we could be twins!

The highlight of the day was — surprise — dinner. Bruno had never had good Indian food, and our feast was one for the books. Both cured of our vegetable-deprived hungriness, we hit the streets and alleys hopping from bar to bar, where a stranger once more told my brother that he was “very lucky.”

SISTER, stranger. Sister.

Friday, Day 8: Amsterdam

amsterdam
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On our last day in Amsterdam, we tried to check off as many things as my friends had recommended to me. We went to an amazing cheese shop suggested by a friend, but I didn’t like the cheese that was used in the sandwich.

Once again, I panicked about the 7 euro I’d spent on something I did not want to eat, and Bruno had to calm me down. He took the sandwich from me and we went to find a new one. I know I was a huge pain in the back at that moment, but Bruno was a really great brother and understood that this seemingly trivial thing is a problem for me.

Afterward, we saw more art, tried not to fall asleep on a canal cruise, had some veggie-packed Vietnamese food, and went to a very nice bar right on the canal. There, we were able to once again get to know each other as people, and not just as grown-up versions of the children we once were.

Day 9, Flying Home (And Reflecting On What I Learned)

leaving
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Needless to say, we were exhausted by the end of the trip. This is what we looked like at breakfast on the day of our flight.

Before this trip, I wouldn’t really have considered me and my brother to be friends. We were people who grew up in the same home and cared for each other in distant ways, but we didn’t really know anything about each other.

Now, I think it’s safe to say that we are friends, and that we share more in common than we thought. We spent a lot of time talking about our bands and sharing music with each other along the way. From this point on, I think we’ll be able to be much more open with each other about what is going on in our lives. I would totally recommend taking a trip far away from home with your sibling!

To sum up, I learned that:

  • My brother and I are very similar, which can be difficult to maneuver when trying to make plans.
  • We share a lot of the same overarching interests, although the specifics may vary.
  • We both apologize. A lot. However, it’s only warranted some of the time.
  • I need to try harder to overcome my issues from my past in order to make the most of my days and to not be a drag to others and ruin a perfectly enjoyable moment.
  • I am not 23 anymore, and maybe I’m anemic! I was tired the whole time and couldn’t keep up with Bruno. The four-year age difference is a crucial one, apparently.
  • It’s OK to tell people that you care about them. Nothing bad is going to happen; the earth will not implode in a fiery blip.
  • In fact, it’s even OK to tell people that you love them, especially if they’re your own flesh and blood.

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